Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
Despite fear and anxiety in the advanced cities of the West, terrorism remains highly concentrated in a small number of conflict-ridden nations.
The terrorist attacks in Paris this month sent shock waves through the advanced world. Anxieties rose not just in New York and London but also in cities like Brussels and Stockholm, where security alerts rose to their highest levels.
Amidst all this understandable worry, it’s important to remember that the reality of violent terrorist acts is that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of poor, troubled nations. Terrorism is just far less common in cosmopolitan Western cities.
Only a handful of countries—Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria—accounted for more than three-quarters (78 percent) of worldwide deaths attributed to terrorism in 2014, according to the newly released findings of the Global Terrorism Index, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The report collates extensive data on the toll of more than 140,000 terrorist incidents across cross 162 nations. Strikingly, prior to the Paris attacks, Western cities and nations accounted for just one-half of 1 percent of all deaths from terrorism since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The chart below shows the global cities with the highest numbers of deaths and highest death rates attributed to terrorism. Baghdad tops the list with more than 2,500 terrorism-related deaths in 2014, which amounts to a staggering rate of 43 deaths per 100,000 people. The other cities on the list are all in Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Ukraine. That said, the number of deaths attributed to the recent Paris attacks and the Charlie Hebdo massacre combined would exceed several cities on this list, and the overall terrorism death rate for Paris in 2015 would be 6.3 deaths per 100,000, again higher than several of these cities.
The number of deaths attributed to terrorism increased dramatically in 2014, according to the report, growing by 80 percent—the largest annual increase in a decade and a half. Since 2000, global deaths stemming from terrorism grew nearly ten-fold, from roughly 3,300 to more than 32,500. Terrorism-related deaths have grown considerably in Somalia, Ukraine, Yemen, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Cameroon, which combined saw more than 500 deaths from terrorism in 2014, in addition to the nations mentioned above. All told, 67 nations experienced terrorist attacks in 2014, including France, Belgium, Australia, Austria, and Canada.
The majority of terrorism (51 percent) stems from just two group: ISIL and Boko Haram, whose activities has skyrocketed over the past four or five years, as the chart below shows.
Foreshadowing the tragedy in Paris, the report details how global terrorism has shifted to target private citizens going about their regular day-to-day activities. More than 15,000 private citizens died at the hands of terrorists in 2014, a staggering 172 percent increase over 2013. And, as in Paris, the weapons of choice for terrorists are bombs and explosives (used in 60 percent of all attacks) and guns (used in 30 percent).
In the West, the vast majority of deaths attributed to terrorism did not stem from organized attacks like those in Paris, but were instead committed by individuals acting alone. These so called “lone-wolf attacks” accounted for 70 percent of all terrorism-related deaths in the West since 1976. Most of these came at the hands of home-grown terrorists, “attributed to a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism.”
The report also finds that terrorism is a “significant driver” of the global refugee crisis and not vice versa. “Ten of the 11 countries that had more than 500 deaths from terrorism in 2014 had the highest levels of refugees” in the world, the report reads.
The report draws a clear connection to the growing number of foreign fighters from Europe joining up with and being trained by jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. (I should note here, as the authors of the report do, the difficulty in getting accurate data on these foreign fighters. The Institute for Economics and Peace bases its assessment on estimates from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalism and The Soufan Group). Although the majority of these fighters come from nearby Middle Eastern and North African states such as Tunisia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, a significant and increasing number—more than 20 percent according to the report—hail from France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Russia. Back in March, the French Prime Minister predicted that 10,000 Europeans would join ISIL by the end of this year. Many of these terrorist fighters are being recruited out of segregated, disadvantaged and marginalized suburbs just outside of cities like Brussels, Paris, and London, and some return to these areas to inflict terrorism.
While the costs of terrorism are substantial, they should be taken in the context of other forms of violence. Across the world, homicides account for 437,000 deaths per year, 13 times more than from terrorism. And as the psychologist Steven Pinker frequently reminds us, all forms of violence have been falling across the world.
Ultimately, terrorism is a consequence of failed or fragile states. More than nine in 10 of all deadly terrorist attacks over the last 25 years have occurred in nations where state-sponsored political violence was widespread. The Global Terrorism Index is in fact correlated with the Fragile States Index I wrote about recently (with a correlation of .42). These fragile and dysfunctional states are among the least educated, least affluent, least tolerant, and least urbanized in the world, with cities badly broken by ongoing military conflict.
While more military intervention to root out terrorists and increased security measures to keep our cities safe will help in the short-run, it will take a consistent effort of economic upgrading and city-building in just these troubled places to make the world substantially safer in the longer run.